This year the annual Monterrey International Film Festival (FIC) chose France as their “guest country” and the movie I most wanted to see was Voyage to Tahiti.
We followed Paul Gauguin, as he had followed Pierre Loti, to a functionally fictionalized and eroticized Tahiti where pre-pubescent girls present as fully formed exotic women, outsiders are mostly welcomed into the fold and the entirety of an island exists for your inspiration. Imperialist in its imaginings, Gauguin’s singular endeavor consumes people and place only to reproduce them in oil paint and block print. Which is not to say that his art is unforgivably colonialist but the movie about his art kinda is. It was lovely enough but fraught with some familiar problems.
This biopic distills Gauguin’s syphilitic promiscuity down to one mostly monogamous made-for-the-movies love story. The writers flipped the script and portray him as the misunderstood husband of unsupportive wives, the unappreciated hero who died, as all the Great Starving Artists do, in penniless obscurity. He abandoned his Danish wife and their five children in Paris but that is redressed as her lack of faith in his talent and his spoiled children’s desire to not live in frozen filth. That his Tahitian child bride leaves him for a boy her own age is a betrayal designed to pain us too. It is lamented instead as a May-December romance that failed to last. That the actress appears much older than the 13-year-old he was rumored to have taken as the first of three teenage wives is immaterial to the tale of the tormented genius she left to languish without an official breakup or even a last goodbye. As a librarian friend of mine says, Le Sigh.
We are almost made to feel guilty, hoping that there is a Heaven from which he can celebrate his posthumous success, his progeny benefiting from bearing his now famous name — potential prominence being the only thing he longed to provide for the family he created.
But what about his art, you ask?
Much of Gauguin’s paintings are vibrant pastorals and many of his portraits are of non-nude women. (Note to self: read more about cloisonnism and Synthetist style.) But the movie’s soft treatment of our suffering-for-his-art hero mirrors the buffed-out edges of all the famous artists’ transgressions, minimizes the suffering of their women and maximizes the importance of their art. And Gauguin’s life, as much as his paintings, intrinsically tangled as they were, highlight three things that never seem to change in art — regardless of the artist, the era and the medium.
- “Artistic” Nudity is Disproportionately Female. Be it sculpture, painting, music videos or Weinstein Company movies women are disproportionately nude while their typically older and implicitly wiser male counterparts are fully clothed and in control of scene and plot. Now of course not all nudity objectifies women. But not all nudity is art. And not all “art” is artistic.
- Assholes Get a Pass If They’re Artists. Regardless of their treatment of the people in their lives, artists, typically male, are revered in the retrospective of their lives and their work irrespective of their misogyny, pedophilia, or general misanthropy. We beatify Great Men who create Great Art and sanitize or even outright absolve their personal sins so we can consecrate their creative contributions to society. Because we believe they make us better.
- Art will always matter more than the artist. The list of misogynists and pedophiles revered in the art world is likely as long as human history is old. And American pop culture dovetails this European art tradition with our actors, musicians and Hollywood heavy hitters — Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., R. Kelly …
Full disclosure: I wouldn’t hesitate to dropkick all of the above American degenerates into an alligator pit. But my European favorites, Picasso and Rodin? Jimmy Page? My resolve starts to weaken.
Rodin might have been capricious (his word) in his private life, but at least he sculpted male nudes too. He was no hypocrite in his prolific career.
Unlike the bullshit arguments made about the beauty of the human form from men who never painted or drew other men nude, Rodin sculpted men, women and even individual body parts. He sculpted hands as erotically as entire bodies, with as much veined detail as he did The Gates of Hell. And though Gauguin might have painted as many clothed women as nude he certainly never painted any nude men. We have to return to Ancient Greece to find male nudity celebrated.
I’m presupposing here that art “evolving” includes gender-equal nudity. But maybe that is not a goal of art. Maybe only the medium evolves.
Music video vixens aren’t necessarily different from Gauguin’s breasts-with-red-flowers of a century ago. But perhaps oil-painted objectification seems less overt? Maybe it isn’t even objectification. Gauguin’s inky colors and strong composition are beautiful in the painting below. But what if the consistently quantifiable difference between paintings in museums and the “pimpery pays” narrative of much modern music is just that artists now combine their self portraits with depictions of their young nude muses? Painting takes more time and talent but I see timeless parallels.
The 20th-century titans were no different than Gauguin in how their private lives informed their art, their gifts to the public. Picasso was an unrepentant egotist likely responsible for the suicide of two female lovers, one cuckolded male friend and his grandson. He has a literal body count.
“His brilliant oeuvre demanded human sacrifices,’’ his granddaughter said.
And yet, I still want to frame this promotional poster from the exhibition we saw at the Museée Picasso in Paris last year. That’s right. I want to decorate with my own hypocrisy. Because I adore this poster and I have fond memories of that exhibition. (We missed the Olga Picasso exhibition by one day.)
From painting to sculpture to photography to movie to music video, women’s bodies have long inspired the art of men but in so doing are often consumed as though they are already art — and only art. And I want one of Picasso’s women on my wall despite knowing the many circles of hell he put countless people through.
Though not hellaciously degrading, Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio sort of looks like a 19th century strip club — sans child and dog and oil painting. One naked woman’s body services an odd crowd of fully clothed men in the room. And it reminded me of a more recent photographer’s work.
More than a hundred years later, even when the woman is depicted as able to interact with a fully clothed man as a chess-playing equal, she is still completely naked. In this famous photograph we are the fully clothed onlookers while a completely naked Eve Babitz sits across from her elderly opponent. Sometimes she is parenthetically credited in the absurdly objectifying title: “Marcel Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude, (Eve Babitz)”. A Nude. Not even The Nude. Note that in my description she is the subject of the sentence but in Wasser’s caption the object. And I suspect those parentheses were only added after she garnered who own acclaim as an author, though likely owing more to her ingenue infamy as LA’s It Girl of Chateau Marmont than to her literary prowess.
Imagine for a moment Duchamp as “a nude”. You know, because the human body is beautiful. Now imagine Babitz fully clothed peering through her glasses at her next move. Would that photograph not also be art?
Even American female photographers default to female nudity as readymade de facto art. Everyone lauds Annie Liebovitz for her groundbreaking and gender-role bending 1980 Rolling Stone cover with naked fetal John Lennon curled around fully clothed Yoko Ono. But I suspect most people would be as surprised as I was to read that this was not Liebovitz’s compositional brilliance or artistic direction but rather Ono’s last-minute refusal to strip for Liebovitz’s original vision of the nude lovers lying next to each other.
Imprinted though that photo may be in our collective cultural memory, any progress we have made in some artistic media has been crushed like a cockroach under the shoe of the ol’ gratuitous sex scenes. Hot chicks writhing around on the hoods of sports cars helps little. I’m looking at you, Jessica Simpson’s creepy af dad.
And so, dear art-loving friends, what are we to do? I’m not saying the female body isn’t beautiful. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be celebrated. But the market in which it’s being sold always requires examining. If posing/dancing/playing chess nude is a woman’s best option for financial independence and success we have an economic problem in addition to a social problem. If not, we just might behold a pure incarnation of art.
And once art has passed into the commons and the artist no longer profits from our consumption, we just might be relieved of the moral burden of asking these questions altogether. Maybe then it’s ok to hang on my wall. But if the artist is still earning royalties for my consumption of their art/music/movies perhaps it’s time for a pass — no pump fake.
Or maybe I just want to believe that so I can hang up more Picasso and Dalí and listen to Beat It guilt-free for the rest of my life.